Isolation, Identity & Community

June 23, 2021

Like everyone else, I'm fighting a lifelong battle with myself. Since I started using the internet, I've maintained a few different blogs. The intent was always to document things I was learning, but my mental image was of discrete 'projects' related to technology. Instead, I found and still find myself writing about the things I've learned about myself.

Eventually, I was taken by an urge to produce something of objective value, and that compulsion lead me to delete all of my previous blogs. I've never been sentimental; once a letter has been read, its purpose has been fulfilled. I've treated writing the same way - it's a structured medium for me to figure out and examine my thoughts. I've been thinking a lot the past year, but have somehow spent more time talking to others than I ever have, given the circumstances.

For a very long time I've found myself wandering from community to community. It's driven by an interest in specific skills or hobbies, and I have always insisted that meeting people is simply a nice side benefit. Despite the importance I place on each person as part of a larger whole, I've never felt integrated into anything I've spent time in. It didn't matter if I'd put three months or six years into a skill; I've never been a "dancer" or a "circus performer". I've acted as "a teacher" or "a coordinator"; I find overidentifying with things makes it difficult to assess them critically.

Last year, nearly a month before Ireland's initial COVID lockdown began, I started to take stock of the fact I've never felt like part of anything larger than myself. Initially, I thought I was mistakenly trying to find a home, instead of building one. I've come to realise that the truth is I never felt like I needed one.

But I want one.

As a child I was mostly left to my own devices. Through no direct intent of their own, I've come to see that in retrospect (And only thanks to the perspective of third parties), my parents neglected me. I mentioned that I was walking around the city on my own around age six to a friend, and they joked about me being a "latchkey child".

I'd never heard the term before, and as I read about it, I realised it was entirely accurate. My parents were always busy - my papa had his notions about running his clothing factory, and my mam spent most of her free time on the phone, talking to her relatives in the Philippines. I was left to my own devices: I read books, I wrote, and I would eventually play videogames. I don't fault them for it. They both come from families living close to abject poverty, so me being fed and wearing clothes of the right size was an improvement from their own experiences growing up.

It meant that I developed a sense of self in a vaccuum. My entire world was what I could reach, see and think about. Occasionally, I shared it with others, but I never became attached - because I had no sense of longing for attachment. My parents never hugged me, and if I felt sad or confused, they would try to reason through it or instruct me to deal with it - not comfort me. The only physical sensation I felt from others growing up was violence, because a lone, shy and introverted boy is an easy target.

I've tried very hard to manage the patterns that prevent me from interacting with people the way I'd like to. A friend used the term "socialised" to describe my biggest takeaway from when we were teenagers. I wish I could be offended, but when I see a small puppy, confused yet eager to engage with the world, I can completely relate. Going from touching nobody to being affectionate with friends was my first intrapersonal challenge.

Nowadays I'm still very intentional about touching others, out of concern - my comfort zone is incredibly flexible compared to some of my friends. I would rather suffer some frustration restraining myself than risk hurting someone else. If nothing else, it's made talking about consent straightforward when it comes to dating.

Observing others to learn social norms has been my approach to fitting in, and it's largely worked in both personal and professional contexts. My unintentional stoicism in the face of many different topics meant that when COVID lockdown occured, I never felt "isolated". Certainly, I was on my own - but I always have been, so what's the difference?

The first month of lockdown was, in some ways, the best and worst of my life - it was suddenly socially acceptable to be unemployed and at home all the time. I could finally, guiltlessly try being truly selfish for the first time in my life. Once I got it out of my system, I began to earnestly introspect in a way I hadn't for many years.

Years ago, during a contemporary dance workshop, there was an exercise in which one person had had to try explain what happiness was in their lives while another wrote their intepretation of it, then switched roles. The person I was paired with had the impression that I "believed other people robbed me of joy".

It's an incredibly overdramatic description, and I laughed. I can't say for certain they were entirely wrong, but I know I was much worse at articulating myself - people add noise to my life. Sometimes the noise is good, and sometimes the noise is bad, but noise is noise regardless, and it impacts my ability to breathe, think and live.

Cloistered, I rekindled a certain joy I never appreciated before. And I also thought a lot about who I am and how that relates to other people.

I've been a coward. I am the first asshole to tell people if they're scared of trying something new, it's because it would create change in their lives - and change is scary. But one day, as I commiserated with a friend over our experiences running events, I finally connected some neurons in my brain.

I've never felt like I've been part of a group or community. Anyone with perceived authority has a responsibility to manage that attention. Your peers are second to holding yourself accountable for your actions. I am so thoroughly used to thinking of myself as a lone anomaly observing the world as I pass through it that I have overcorrected into preventing myself from experiencing life with other people.

It has nothing to do with a fear of rejection - believe me, I have experimented with enough failure in my life that if rejection stopped me from trying things, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. I've married the idea that allowing myself to be part of other peoples' lives also means that I must have a specific reason being there.

For years, being helpful was the primary way I engaged with other people. If someone needed something carried, that was an easy task. If someone needed a website, that was something I could build for them. Organising an event? I could learn enough to do that, too. It was a strategy and habit I'd built while trying to overcome my shyness; showing up to social events early to help meant there was less noise to manage. I had purpose; if I felt overwhelmed, I could exfiltate myself from situations by justifying something I needed to do elsewhere.

I threw this entire approach away, because I was building parasocial relationships - people would only contact me when they wanted something from me. It was my own fault; I defined our relationship that way. I refused to fight in the arena because although I missed the adrenaline, I didn't want anyone to think I did it for their amusement.

I've always enjoyed talking to people for the pure sake of it, but never thought others could treat me the same. In a way, this is a form of asymmetrical insight; I have been so detatched from a sense of self that I cannot fathom what anyone else could be attached to. I see nuance in the world, but not in myself - I have lived in extremes.

I'm not sure what the future holds. But I want more people to be part of mine.